Dear Leo and Miller,
A few days ago we were in town, sitting outside the café where we always go, and across from us was a man with a big beard in his forties or thereabouts drinking coffee. He looked up and started smiling; and the more noise the two of you were making, the more he smiled, which is very unusual. He came over to us, patted Leo on the head and said how beautiful you were. Then he gave you a Kinder Bueno (which was lucky as it’s the only chocolate you like) and pinched your cheeks. To be honest, it was more of a grab than a pinch, a proper fistful of flesh. The kind grannies back in the day used to do. He spoke English but with a foreign accent. This and the cheek-grabbing silenced you both into wide-eyed staring mode. This made him laugh more and he said, “I’m sorry but in my country it’s not unusual for men to fuss over babies. I love children.” I said “Where is home?” And he said “Iraq.”
His name was Hessan. He said he had a niece and a nephew back home who were about the same age as you. He talked about missing his Mum and that he went home recently to look after her because she was ill. He was still beaming at you both as he was saying all this and continued giving Leo more Kinder Buenos. (Miller, you were less impressed with Hessan because for some reason he gave you very adult coffee chocolates which you silently spat out when he wasn’t looking.) He said that these days in Iraq the boys and young men think only of guns and money. In a weird way, it was reassuring to know that other cultures wildly generalise and stereotype their young people too. We’re not the only ones. He told us he had lived in Scotland for eight years but moved because it was too cold. I pointed out that it’s bloody freezing in Newcastle too and he just shrugged and said, “But the people are friendly.”
I’m not encouraging you to talk to strangers. Actually, I am encouraging you to talk to strangers. Not just every stranger you come across but if someone bothers to make conversation, bother back. I hope you’re always interested in other people. Stay curious. Everyone has a story that will have some similarities to your own – even if it’s just that you both like Kinder Bueonos. Your Dad thinks I’m just nosy and that I talk too much (in general, not just to strangers) and is horrified that I speak to people I don’t know in the street. But it’s in my bones and I hope you both get a little bit of that too. Promise me that you will always ask questions. Because, if nothing else, you owe it to a kind stranger who misses their country, to ask – “Where is home?”
P.S. For clarification, when considering talking to a stranger, context is important: there is a big difference between being down a dark alley in the middle of the night and outside a really busy cafe in the middle of the afternoon,
Dear Leo and Miller,
I’ve said before how lucky you both are to see so much of your grandparents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have both sets within such easy reach.
I want to tell you about your Popa, my Dad. My wonderful and impossible Dad who surprises me every day and after 37 years I am still trying to figure him out. Kind and contradictory, sensitive and confrontational, he is a maddening typhoon of charm and temper. He still tells me what to do and sometimes I still listen. The best advice I have from him that I want to share with you wasn’t even directed at me – he said it to Uncle Max or Uncle Freddie when they were teenagers. But it could just as easily have been applied to me at that age: “If you fly with the crows, you get shot with the crows.” You don’t have to be the one causing the trouble; just being there in the mix is bad enough, so don’t run with a bad crowd, is basically what it means. And he is right. The other memorable piece of advice he gave his children is less profound but still a useful lesson: “Don’t stand in piles of leaves because there’s probably dog poo underneath.” Those were his parting words to me when I went off to university and I think of him and what he said every time I see piles of Autumn leaves on the street.
You both shriek with glee when he comes to our door, so you’re clearly enamoured with him already and I can see the feeling is mutual. He’s delighting in a new batch of fans to appreciate his fart jokes and juvenile sense of humour. To help you on your way to a harmonious and lasting relationship with this force of nature, here are 11 things I think you should know about him. Remember children: knowledge is power
- He loves bikes, brass handles and locks, dogs, fried bread, tools, Vintage TV, golf, books… And he can never get enough of any of them.
- He likes animals a lot. Over recent years he has trained a black bird in the garden, which sits watching him and flies to meet him at the back gate for breakfast. He is convinced it also understands what he is saying. It’s actually quite amazing and I want you both to know that this is not normal: most people can’t befriend wild creatures. He definitely has some kind of gift with birds in particular.
- All he wants for Christmas and birthdays is £20 and a giant Toblerone. Don’t try and be thoughtful or clever and get him anything else. You will be thanked with a stony silence at best.
- He spends a lot of time in charity shops and auction houses. Some are hits, some are misses but the sheer scale of the amount of stuff he buys means there’s a winner for both of you at least twice a week. He has an excellent eye but also no editing function, so manage your expectations when he says things like “What size shoe are you again?”
- He hates Americanisms and will not talk to someone if they use the word “guys.” Life-long friendships have been severed over this. If he even overhears someone say “guys” he launches into a rant. (Same with “train station”: it should be “railway station.”) And if he asks how you are, never, under any circumstances say “good.” Say anything else. It would be better to say “none of your bloody business” than “good.” This, above all, sends him over the edge. Rudeness doesn’t bother him: poor command of English really does.
- He is funny. Very very funny. And when he’s on top form, no-one can touch him.
- He wants Bat Out of Hell to be played at his funeral. And there is a really long Meatloaf documentary (saved in Sky Planner) that we as a family call ‘The Happy Place’ which never fails to shunt him out of a bad mood.
- Watching television with him is a painful and stressful experience that should be avoided at all costs because he only likes golf, MASH and Vintage TV (and ‘The Happy Place’, see above) and will give you a live, running commentary on why everything else is shit.
- He will try and help anyone and is absolutely brilliant at giving lifts. His generosity with lifts knows no bounds and he always says yes. But he’s not big on road safety so be prepared for a stressful ride in a chaotically messy car with cardboard boxes full of books on every seat. And please remember to put your seat belts on because he doesn’t bother with them and drives around all day with that beep beep warning sound going off the whole time.
- It is a complete and utter waste of time trying to argue with him. About anything. Seriously, don’t bother.
- If you do Ebay searches for him (usually for obscure bike parts or discontinued telescope lenses), he will love you forever.
I have a thousand more things to tell you about Popa. Hilarious and exasperating and brilliant stories. But the above information is a handy overview and even if you skip the first 10 and just do 11 – you’ll be fine.
Dear Leo and Miller,
I loved school. Some of the happiest memories I have are from my school days and I expect I will write a lot about them in these letters. The first school I went to was a convent school and many of the teachers were nuns. It didn’t seem strange at the time but looking back, I suppose was and it will seem very strange to you two. On my first day at La Sagesse, aged 3, I met Lucy and we swiftly became best friends. Miller, that is one of your godmothers. I have photographs of us doing ballet, performing in the nativity play and at various birthday parties (in questionable tracksuits) through the years. I hope you both meet friends early in your childhood who you stick with for life because know one knows you like they do. Cling to them and make time for them. I always say the true test of friendship is if you’re both happy to sit and do nothing but watch TV together. Like grounded teenagers. Maybe occasionally saying something but mainly just hanging out in total silence. Over our shared history, Lucy and I have spent full days together only watching TV with very few words spoken. The last time she came to stay (which she does for one night, every year, between Christmas and New Year) we just watched films trailers. Dozens of trailers on Apple TV for hours and we had a blast. That’s true friendship.
When I was 11, I moved to a different school, another school for girls. We walk past it now all the time because it’s very near our house. Last week, I saw a small gold plaque in the garden area in front of the building I think used to be the six form common room. The building itself is now up for sale and looked very decrepit and sad which made me pay more attention than usual. I had never noticed the plaque before. It read: In Loving Memory of Sara Bernstone who was a pupil here between 1997 – 2007 ‘I think paper cuts absolutely wreck and you get no sympathy because most of the time you can’t even see the damn things.’
I left that school in 1998 and I didn’t know Sara Bernstone but I keep thinking about this plaque dedicated to her. The quote about the paper cut must have been her words and someone who loved her (her parents? her school friends?) must have chosen those words to remember her by. They’re funny and open and light-hearted and presumably that’s exactly the way she was. It didn’t make me sad to read that plaque, it made me smile and I thought, that’s what I want these letters to do. I want them to sound like me and make you smile. So instead of trying to be dramatic and poignant, which, I’m going to be honest, is exhausting to keep up on a regular basis, I’m going to write like how I am – which is light-hearted and open and hopefully funny. I keep telling you both to play to your strengths, so I will also play to mine.
Thank you Sara Bernstone, whoever you are. I hope you had as good a time at Central High as I did.
PS – I can be serious too. Just maybe not once a week.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It was Mother’s Day on Sunday which led me to thinking about whether I am a good Mother. I’m trying not to let the fact I’m convinced you both got sun-burnt over the weekend influence my decision too much. Took you to the beach – good mum. Couldn’t find sunscreen – bad mum. Got you ice-cream – good mum. Put you to bad unwashed and without tea because you fell asleep in the car on the way home – bad mum. You both behaved so well all day apart from one unfortunate incident involving you Leo. You weren’t happy with the amount of raspberry sauce on your 99 and began screaming “I WANT MORE MONKEYS BLOOD” at a queue full of people.
It’s definitely getting easier though. The day tripping I mean. Miller, we didn’t take your buggy with us for the first time and it was a revelation. You can more or less get away with not having a day-time sleep now so we just left it behind and only took the essentials (not including sunscreen unfortunately.) No scooters or toys either. Something about the lack of baggage made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. We got up to Beadnell about lunchtime and went straight to the beach. Three hours straight. On the beach. I would like to say that you played in the sea happily together all day but in truth, you spent most of the time fascinated with a washed-up dead seal that was missing it’s face… And that’s OK because it taught you lots about life and death and allowed me and your Dad to sit and do nothing for a while. It’s getting harder every day now to hide from you that I am a very lazy person. Your Aunty Jess was very sporty as a child. Uncle Max and Uncle Freddie were too and still are now. I have never been. Which is why I’m so grateful that your Dad will happily run around with you in his arms, up and down sand dunes (your new favourite game) for hours on end.
How my Mum found the energy to deal with four small children all at once absolutely blows my mind… And it’s totally understandable why her one answer to all my parenting questions – Did you cry a lot Mum? Did I get chicken pox? Did Dad ever take us all out at the same time? When did we start playing nicely? – is “Sarah, I honestly can’t remember.” The whole experience must remain a total blur. I think that’s exactly what life is like with children – and this weekend with you was no exception – a beautiful blur. Of mess and crying, heart-stopping happiness, exhausted faces, flushed faces, mornings in the dark and night-times when it’s light, furious words, bed sheets and beaches, nothing where it should be, scruffy limbs and sticky hair, out-of-nowhere tenderness, dead seals and monkeys blood.
I always find these letters hard to start. Because I see you every day and because you're only two. I have to try and remember that these letters are for the future you…
Someone said write what you know and start with the truth. The truth is I never thought I would want a daughter. Being a girl myself I know how much trouble they are. Especially teenage ones. I remember thinking (when I was a teenager) if I ever had a daughter, what on earth could I teach her? I am a hopeless person so what advise could I give? But that’s just because I was failing miserably at being happy and couldn’t imagine what use I would be as some kind of role model for another girl. I know that a lot of people want to be their child’s best friend, well, Miller sweetheart, I don’t want to be your best friend, I want to be your Mum. For me a friend is a pal, a comrade, a partner in crime – I am here to set an example and keep you out of trouble as best I can. You’ll have a thousand friends Miller, I promise you that (and with a bit of luck five or six proper ones who mean more than the rest combined) but that’s not the role I’m here for. My position in your life is more difficult and important than that. You will hate me a lot because I will try and ruin your fun. You will wish I was like some other cooler Mum who lets their daughter run wild. Don’t forget I know how this goes. I only hope I can be like my Mum and deal with the terrible times to come (and they will come) with good humour and utter faith that it will all come out in the wash. I remember her trying to comfort some family friends who were having a nightmare with their wayward son. They were in absolute despair that he was lost to them forever and all she said was "they always come back.” And she was right.
Sometimes I still feel like a hopeless teenager who has no idea what to do with a daughter (or a son) but luckily I still have a bit of time to grow up myself before any major bumps in the road present themselves. Maybe I’ll even discover some of my Mum’s patience and perseverance in me to ride the storms ahead. But more than that, when you really need it, I hope I’m strong enough to be a Mum and don’t just try and be your friend.
PS. Happy Birthday darling.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It’s International Women’s Day today. I was looking through some photos to find a good one to include in this letter and I found one of my Granny, Freda, one of the best women I have known. It made me smile and think of something she told me when I was a teenager which I would like to share with you. She said “If you are going to smoke, don’t do it on the street. And for God’s sake don’t buy packets of ten because people will think you can’t afford twenty.” Obviously this isn’t good advice: good advice would be don’t smoke at all. But I love it all the same because it sounds just like her. Everything was about keeping up standards. You did things properly, you followed rules (written and unwritten ones), you gave a good impression at all times. I also remember her telling me you should always take your coat off when you go to someone’s house, even if you were cold (and I am always cold) because it’s rude to keep it on. Don’t interrupt. That was another one. I still haven’t quite got the hang of that one… But I cling on to them nonetheless: little standards of behaviour to remember her by.
One sadness I have is that neither of my grandparents met your Dad. They were great people and he would have loved them.
What I remember about them most was how composed they were. I never saw either of them get riled up about anything. Maybe I just didn’t see it or maybe they hid it well but the impression they left on me was one of grace and impeccable manners and of not complaining. They were both pillars of calm and good behaviour. Maybe it’s a generation thing. My parents seem like big kids to me (in the best way) but my grandparents were always grown-ups. As a child, I distinctly recall there being a brand new box of man-size tissues on the back seat of their immaculate car (green jag) at all times and being very impressed at the adultness of it: I dream that one day my car will be like this.
Freda loved perfume: she was big on fragrance. Maybe that’s where I get it from. When I worked in London, kindly editors would sometimes take pity on me and give me freebies from the beauty cupboard and when it was perfume I always took it home for her. The last one I gave her, the one she was wearing before she died, was Sicily by Dolce & Gabbana which smells like lemons and sunshine and nights abroad. I still have the bottle.
I want you to know that she was a wonderful woman who influenced my life more than you could know. (How wonderful her husband was is for another letter.) So I urge both of you to pay attention to what all your grandparents tell you (and you’re lucky to have all four) because they know a lot about life. Much more than I do. When you turn into awful teenagers, they will be the only ones who still see the good in you. Grow close to them and you will never have a bond like it. Imagining their reaction might make you stop and think before doing something reckless. It certainly prevented me going down a few stupid paths… I have to admit that I did sometimes smoke in the street. But I always bought twenty. She would have been so proud.
I honestly didn’t think having a daughter would be that different from having a son. And it hasn’t been until now. Now that you are trying to talk and are starting to form words though, it is very, very different. You were both so similar as tiny babies, when I look back at photos from the day you were both born, I can only tell if it’s you or Leo by whether I have my wedding ring on a necklace round my neck. (We got married between having you both so, Leo is Baby Holmes on all his hospital records and Miller, you are Baby Melling.) Now, not only are you looking less alike, your different characters are beginning to shine through. Miller, you will sit on my knee with one arm hanging round my neck, speaking into my face, kissing and kissing… Leo never sat still on my knee (or on anything for that matter) for more than 30 seconds. And still doesn’t. He just wants to be off. Off and away to who knows where. He was climbing out of his cot and hurling himself over stair-gates before he was 18 months old. He could drag himself up stairs and slides before he had even put one foot in front of the other to walk. Miller, you are not proving to be as nimble. But what you lack in physical prowess, you more than make up for in loving nature. And your little gravelly voice kills me every time. The crying in the morning though, really needs to stop. The other morning when you were staggering around our bedroom dramatically, with three bunnies grasped in one hand and your chocolate bottle leaking all over the floor from the other hand, and you were wailing and wailing for absolutely no reason, your Dad said “Miller, if you stop crying in the mornings, I will top up your ISA by £150.” That incident sums up our differences as people and parents – your Dad thinks a financial incentive will appeal to a two-year-old and I had no idea you even had an ISA.
PS I’m also not entirely sure what an ISA actually is. But there’s definitely money involved, so you’re a very lucky girl to have one.
Dear Leo and Miller,
It’s Valentine’s Day and I want to show you my favourite photo of our wedding day. I can’t remember who took it. Someone with a broken phone because there’s a strange line down the image and there is definitely something not quite right with the light. But it is my favourite photo from that day. I love it because we don’t know it’s being taken or at least we aren’t looking at the camera which is good enough. Your Dad looks at a camera like he hates the world or at least his life: it’s very rare that a photo captures him looking even neutral never mind happy. So to have a photo where he looks like he’s enjoying himself is a wonderful thing. I love that you can see my dress riding up at the side because I have a 5 month old baby bump beneath that beautiful dress that was getting bigger by the day.
There were only 17 people at our wedding (including us) and we all went for lunch at our favourite restaurant. We ate oysters and drank champagne – it was perfect.
You should probably know that I fainted twice during our marriage service. It was a very sunny day for October and the sun was beaming down through the stain glass windows in the church directly onto my face. I also hadn’t slept that night because, Leo, you were poorly and I lay on the floor by your cot all night convinced you were going to be sick again and choke to death. I was also wearing very restrictive underwear to try and make my dress fit a bit better. It was a perfect storm of terrible conditions that physically and literally floored me. Twice. After the second time, I remember someone saying “Give her some sugar.” And your Uncle Mark gave me a soft mint. Then we tried again and eventually got through the promises and the vows etc. And then we were married. (Incidentally, the vicar who married us was a brilliant man called Nick Chamberlain who became the first Church of England Bishop to openly be in a gay relationship.)
I want you both to know that your Dad is the love of my life and I am lucky that I met him (again) when I was old enough to appreciate a good thing. We have barely spent a handful of nights apart since the first night we spent together. I understand now that love means wanting the other person to be happy. And you can’t be happy if they aren’t happy. Also, being married means taking it in turns to be strong. Without him my life would be a mess – in all ways. We were parents before we were husband and wife, we have always been more than just the two of us. Our lives are full, sometimes too full. But there is no amount of chaos we can’t get through together.
PS. I am trying to stick to the ethos that these letters don’t have to be perfect, they just have to exist. So I started it today and I’m finishing it today like all the rest and it will just have to be good enough.
Dear Leo and Miller,
Since I started writing these letters, I am now constantly thinking about advice or words of guidance that I want to tell you. There are lots, of course, or this blog wouldn’t last very long. Every day I hear or read things that I want to pass on to you both. But if there was one lesson above others I would ask you to hold on to it would be this “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about: so always be kind.” It more or less sums up everything that is important, everything you need to know about life is in there – it is the To Kill a Mocking Bird of advice. I can’t remember who said it to me or where I read it but if you only follow one instruction from me, let it be that.
A close second, and one I have been conjuring up a lot recently, came from the most unlikely of sources. It was stuck up on a wall in a conference room at a business seminar I attended last week. (The very last place I thought would provide inspiration for these letters.) However, it said “If everyone likes what you’re doing they’re probably lying.” I think it was aimed at employers trying to manage their staff effectively in the work place but it has become my current favourite mantra. It suggests the time to worry is when you aren’t getting any criticism and is much better than something similar “You can’t please all the people all the time” which just sounds vague and defeatist.
You will encounter criticism in your life, it’s unavoidable. And people will show a lack of encouragement towards what you’re doing that puts doubt in your mind. But you don’t need everyone to think you’re brilliant: you don’t even need many people to think your brilliant. What other people think isn’t that important: only your attitude towards it. So ignore the negative and don’t buy into the positive too much either. You just need to battle on regardless with whatever it is you think is worthwhile.
Dear Leo and Miller,
I think I need to reassess the frequencies of our letters. I didn’t think it would be too ambitious to write one per week but it is certainly proving so. So instead of once a week it’s going to be when I have something worth sharing with you – then I know I will find the time. I am finding Instagram a better place to stay consistent and connected with the project – it’s much more immediate and practical. But I won’t abandon the blog, I promise.
Christmas went over in a blur. A beautiful blur but a still a blur. The tree stayed standing, no presents were tampered with before the big day and tempers remained at reasonable levels throughout the entire festive period. I think this was mainly due to the fact we didn’t do half of the things we planned on doing. Parties were missed, loose arrangements weren’t kept, half-made commitments were cancelled but I think it was a welcome relief to everyone. From the 28th of December we just hid. Hid in our house and only left it when we absolutely wanted to and completely on our terms. The four of us walked into town and went for dumplings at the market, sometimes soft play. All your normal favourite things. We didn’t even go to Beadnell. The weather was freezing and the advantages weren’t weighing up the disadvantages so we just didn’t go. The last time we went up for the day (sometime in early December) I forgot that you Miller had never stood in the sea before. I led you by the finger, I let go and then you fell in. You were soaked to the skin and so we all had to race back to the house and change you into the only clothes I could find, which weren’t many. When the work is finished to our house, I promise we will go up more, regardless of the weather. But this winter was not the one to spend by the sea.
I do have something worth sharing with you which is taking up a lot of my time but I want you to know how important it is. I touched upon it in my last letter and now there is a real plan. Some friends and I are organising a fund-raising event for Syria. We are raising money for the International Red Cross who are doing incredible work out there. This event is becoming a much bigger thing than I first imagined and to think it’s only 8 weeks away makes me nervous. We’re calling it Something for Syria. It needs to do justice to the cause and I just hope we can pull off something very special.
The picture with this letter is from The Economist and it shows Syrian children play next to a destroyed building in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus (January 9th 2017. Credit AFP/Abd Doumany.) I saw it on Instagram last night and at first, it made me think of you both and then, it made me even more determined to make the event a big success. It’s a good image to hold on to.
Barack Obama gave his farewell address last night, his last speech as President of the United States of America, and, regardless of politics, something he said was also worth holding on to. “Show up. Dive in. Persevere.” Useful to conjour up when a task seems impossible or hope is losing.